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Pater Patriae

The bridge of Sam Hutchinson's nose itched.

His feet left the ground for a moment as he leant back against his lander module. His suit scraped against the rough sand that he had shovelled to cover the vehicle, providing protection against the sun's rays. The inclined surface of the module, a truncated cone, made for awkward support and the rigid neck of his suit forced his helmet to face only sky. Above, the wind dragged plough lines through caramel clouds.

Sam's gloved fingers tapped against his visor. After the long journey, after months of judging distances as more or less infinite, the ground now seemed too close, his chin barely above the dust. More than a decade after corrective optical surgery, faint dimples on his nose still marked where glasses once sat. The urge to push them back in place, to reset his skewed vision, was compulsive. If only he could scratch that itch.

Arrange your thoughts. You are the first. This is an honour.

How long had he been there, exactly? Hours, or longer? The guiding techs, in the control room back home, had whooped through the comm link as the lander swung towards the surface on its twin parachutes. Fear of the looming rock surface had gripped Sam, and he had not responded then, or since.

He fumbled with the hatch and airlock and scrambled inside the lander. A precarious cairn of emptied ration tubes occupied his seat. He must have been hungry, at some point. Time was running away with him. He swept the tubes onto the floor.

The cockpit screens were a mishmash of arcade-cabinet colour. He saw words amid the diagrams and graph axes. Report, Sam Hutchinson. Urgent. Urgent.

He touched the comms button on the side of his helmet. "Hi? Are you there?"

Several stale, static minutes passed.

"Hutch! Thank fuck!" a crackling voice said. Sam knew the guy, but the name escaped him.

"Hi," Sam said again. He thought for a moment. Report, Sam Hutchinson. "I'm on Mars."

Minutes passed in moments.

"Houston," Sam said, "We have a problem. I do."

The handset snickered. "You are the first. This is an honour."

Sam nodded. The voice gave him a headache. He tapped the comms button again and the crackling subsided.

He backed out of the module to stand again on the dust. If there was one good thing about Mars, it was the peace and quiet. His fat, gloved finger tapped at his visor again.

He looked down. His own footprints surrounded his bulky boots, undisturbed by the winds passing over the hollow that contained the lander module. He shifted his position until his boots fitted neatly into the old prints, as if they had always belonged there.

The module nestled dead centre in the crater hollow, equidistant from the edges like the pupil of an eye. There was only other occupant of the planet, an automated rover that had arrived a decade before Sam. Its faint tracks bisected the crater hollow, running beneath the module itself. Sam had laughed at that: perhaps his lander had crushed the rover during its descent. He had checked all around for traces of it, expecting to see wheels protruding like the feet of the Wicked Witch of the West.

The dust tracks crept out of the hollow, over the crater edge in two opposite directions. At one unseen end must be the rover's starting position, its own lander module, useless as soon as it hit the dust. At the opposite end of the tracks the rover itself, presumably, trucked onwards to the horizon. Searching, researching.

But you are different, Sam. You are the first.

The bridge of his nose itched terribly.

One day, this crater hollow would become a golf sand trap, or a swimming pool, or a motorway service station. For now, the hollow waited for whatever belonged here to arrive. A footprint ready to hold a foot.

Those dimples in the bridge of Sam's nose were footprints of a sort, too, crater impressions of unneeded glasses. The thought made his stomach tighten in strange, sudden grief.

He had made all sorts of agreements with his superiors and his team. In exchange for their firing him into space, in exchange for their continual chatter and encouragement during the two-hundred-and-eighteen-day journey, he was to look around and explain what it was that he saw. The lander module held paraphernalia for such work.

He chewed his cheek as he turned to look at one side of the crater, then the other.

How long had he been here?

"I'm scared, I think," he said.

The wind wheezed sympathetically.

"I'm not certain this is for me. There's nothing here, yet."

The wind agreed: nothing here, nothing here.

Mars waited, a dusty hollow, for its occupants to arrive. Perhaps Sam might simply wait, too. The fellows on the other end of the comms link expected him to explore, of course. But as time passed, the curl of the crater edge grew, not in height but in impassability, all the same.

Maybe the rover sat just over the lip of the crater, waiting. Sam giggled at the thought. Perhaps the rover, too, felt at home exactly where it was, in its own footprint. Leave it be.

His glove-fattened finger thudded against his visor. Damn that itch. How could he wait in peace, teased and tortured so?

He struggled back into the module to take his place in the curved seat. Turning awkwardly, he retrieved paraphernalia from its neat alcove, weighing each sensor and meter in his hands before settling to the task of taking them apart.

The comms link gurgled happily. He pulled up his legs to sit cross-legged, finding a position that suited the curve of the seat.

"Good God. Is that it?" Meryl Benchley said.

Calvin, her third-generation aye-aye robot, cocked its blank head as it processed the visual information. Only parts of the tiny lander module were visible beneath the sandcastle of dust.

"That is the Hide-and-Seek," it replied. The echo of its mechanical voice ping-ponged around the hollow.

The cone-shaped module squatted in the centre of the crater. Scuffed tracks and prints formed overlapping, confused circles around its base. Debris littered the area beside the Hide-and-Seek's door. An explosion, perhaps?

Meryl tapped the comms trigger. "Guys. I've only gone and found Sam Hutchinson's lander."

The speaker emitted only a tinny echo of the winds swirling above. She tapped the trigger again. Nothing. The crater must be a dead spot.

"I'm going down there," she said.

Sam Hutchinson was near-mythical to Meryl and her colleagues. In the pulp novels of her youth he had been martyred again and again for the benefit of mankind. Sam Hutchinson battles the space weevils. Sam Hutchinson captures the Mars tornado-ghost. Sam Hutchinson fights and loses, but others will come, others will follow in his footsteps. He pushed the button that started it all.

Calvin held back at the crater's edge as Meryl huffed down the slope. Now she saw that the machinery scattered in the dust had been dismantled and lay at distances that suggested that they had been tossed from the door of the module. Her feet, though enormous in the suit's bulky boots, slipped easily into the prints before the doorway. She crept around the perimeter of the module. With her right arm she swept away the dust to make wide, grimy streaks on the cockpit window.

There was a man in there. She leapt backward in shock, plumes of dust rising around her feet as she landed. Tentatively, she edged closer again. The figure didn't move.

Meryl cupped her hands above her visor to block the brown light from above. Only a single dim striplight lit the interior of the Hide-and-Seek. The helmet on the pilot's lap reflected the sunlight from outside the vessel. Meryl's own body carved a silhouette in its centre.

She recognised Sam Hutchinson's features, familiar from textbooks, magazine covers, T-shirts. This Sam Hutchinson appeared happy, sitting cross-legged like a child. His body looked well-preserved, all things considered.

Her helmet tinked against the window as she leant in to peer at his face. Though they were only crudely fashioned from bent wire and mismatched lenses, Sam Hutchinson unmistakably wore glasses.

About the Author
Tim Major is a freelance writer and editor based in York in the UK. His love of speculative fiction is the product of a childhood diet of classic Doctor Who episodes and an early encounter with Triffids. His time-travel thriller novel, YOU DON'T BELONG HERE, was published by Snowbooks in 2016. He has also released two novellas, BLIGHTERS (Abaddon, 2016) and CARUS & MITCH (Omnium Gatherum, 2015), and his short stories have appeared in Interzone, the British Fantasy Society's Horizons and numerous anthologies. He is the Editor of the SF magazine, The Singularity, and blogs at www.cosycatastrophes.wordpress.com.